Jeff Croft

What skills and technologies should colleges and universities teach students who want to be web designers and/or developers? Why?

I think higher education institutions first need to understand that web design and web development are two different things, and offer specialized programs in each. They also need to understand that web design isn’t the same as graphic design and web development isn’t the same as computer science.

Once they’ve established these two unique tracks, they can focus on individual skills and courses needs for each. Off the top of my head:

Web Design: Basics of graphic design (layout, color, typography, etc.), computer-human interaction, information architecture, (X)HTML, CSS, Flash, etc.

Web Development: Object Oriented Programming with modern, dynamic languages (Ruby, Python, PHP, JavaScript…NOT Java!), basics of HTTP protocol, URI design, (X)HTML, DOM, web server basics, etc.

There is some overlap between these two tracks, but by and large, they’re different career paths and should be treated as such.

Should students be educated in both web design and development or just one? Why?

Well, I guess I answered this in my first question. The reason I believe people should be choosing a side, so-to-speak, is simply that the skillset for both is simply way too broad to reasonably expect one person to understand it all. Yes, there are exceptions—but generally speaking, asking a person to fully understand both design and programming is asking too much. If we expect that, we’re going to end up with a lot of jacks-of-all-trades, and masters-of-none. The type of person who tends to be a great graphic designer is, in many ways, the opposite of the type of person who tends to be a great programmer.

On the other hand, each side does need to have a basic understanding of and respect for what the other side does. It’s important for a web designer to have a basic understand of how the web works (for example, the HTTP protocol), and what a developer can and cannot be reasonably expected to do—but they don’t need to understand how to do it themselves.

If you could create your dream curriculum for web design and development, what courses and information would you include? Why? What courses and information now in such programs would you eliminate? Why?

I don’t know a whole lot about what the current programs offer, but my impression is that the fall into one of two camps. They seem to be either:

Graphic design for the web—these curriculums tend to be very, very Flash heavy and don’t actually teach that much about the web. Rather, they’re simply re-applications of existing graphic design programs with web tools (usually Flash). The web is its own very unique medium and needs to be treated as such.

Computer science—a lot of web developers are simply computer science graduates. They tend to understand basic programming well, but have no real understand of how it applies to the web. They don’t understand dynamically-typed languages, they don’t understand HTTP, and their MVC model doesn’t map directly to the web.

The basic problem in both of these cases is that schools are not looking at the web as something new—they’re looking at it as an extension of things they’ve done before. I suspect another problem is that they’re using the same old instructors that have taught graphic design or computer science for years to teach “web design,” and not using web-savvy experts

What type of projects do you want to see in a recent graduate’s web design and/or development portfolio?

I want to see their portfolio include the kinds of work they’re going to be asked to do in the real world—the kind of work that matters on the web today. Social web apps, editorial design for the web, e-commerce, etc. What I don’t want to see is yet another five page brochure-ware site.

I’d also like to see really thoughtful, interesting personal sites for the graduate, rather than typical resumes and run-of-the-mill portfolios.

How can colleges and universities keep web design and/or development curriculum current and relevant?

There’s only one way: hire instructors that are relevant. By and large, they’re not doing this. One of the reasons they’re not doing this is education requirements. I was contacted by a large University about teaching web design and was quite interested. Then they found out I had no graduate-level degree. So instead, they hired some retired Java programmer—to teach “web design.” Huh?

Most of the relevant folks in the industry today don’t have graduate-level degrees in web design or development. Why? Because web design and development programs didn’t exist when we came through school. Most of us stopped going to school as soon as we realized the schools weren’t teaching us anything relevant.

In order to get back to relevancy, colleges and universities are going to have to get over their accreditation standards and hire the people doing great work on the web today to teach. That’s really the only way. They can’t keep giving the same old dude that’s been teaching PASCAL for 25 years a Dreamweaver book and call it “web development.” It doesn’t work. Likewise, they can’t expect the same folks that have been teaching graphic design for 30 years to really be competent web design teachers. They need new blood—people that really understand this stuff and are passionate about it.